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'Healthy-ish' eating is good enough, experts say

Pursuit of dietary 'perfection' can be counterproductive

Michael Pollan In Defense of Food

Author Michael Pollan, pictured here in a PBS documentary, is among those who argue for a simplified, 'healthy-ish' approach to eating. (PBS)

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If you can't eat healthy, maybe try eating "healthy-ish."

That advice seems to be gaining traction among health advocates such as author Michael Pollan, who reduced his food philosophy to "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants," in his book In Defense of Food, which became the basis for a recent PBS documentary.

Bon Appetit Jan 2016 cover

The January 2016 edition of the magazine Bon Appetit focuses on 'healthy-ish' eating. (Supplied)

Elsewhere, the January edition of the food magazine Bon Appetit has the word "healthy-ish" splashed across its cover. 

The idea being promoted is that people need to relax and eat food that's at least somewhat healthy, rather than obsessing over a "perfectly" healthy diet.

It's an idea Calgary doctor Raj Bhardwaj also promoted in a recent CBC interview, saying, "If 80 per cent of the time you are making good, healthy decisions and if the other 20 per cent of the time you're not going totally off the rails, then give yourself a pat on the back."

And if you have a quick look on social media, the hashtag "healthyish" has been used more than 30,000 times in recent months on Instagram alone.

Balanced approach

It may mean different things to different people, but in his latest letter from the editor, Bon Appetit's Adam Rapoport described it as giving in to a pistachio gelato craving sometimes, and eating granola and biking at other times.

Waterloo dietitian Andrea D'Ambrosio, a spokeswoman for Dietitians of Canada, said it's an idea that makes sense, since we're often overloaded with healthy eating advice.

"I'm seeing more and more clients coming in with an overabundance of nutrition information and a lot of demonizing of foods," she said. 

Dietitian Andrea D'Ambrosio

Registered dietitian Andrea D'Ambrosio (right) says the push for health 'perfection' can be a problem. (Dietetic Directions)

"Healthy-ish kind of allows people to have foods that are good for them, but also maybe add ingredients that enhance the flavour."

Flavour is the gateway to healthy-ish eating, according to D'Ambrosio.

She said a recent client of hers didn't like eating vegetables, but he was willing to eat carrots with ranch dip.

A calorie-heavy, fatty and salty dip may not qualify as "healthy," D'Ambrosio acknowledged — but she said it at least got him eating a vegetable, which led to an improved diet.

"He later felt confident trying hummus, which is a healthier dip for his carrots," she said.

"And then he went on to add different vegetables to the hummus, and then added a different vegetable even without the dip sometimes for a snack."

But D'Ambrosio said you don't have to graduate to eating plain vegetables to be healthy. In fact, she said the push for health perfection is precisely the problem these days.

She said labels on our food are more complicated, messages about what to eat seem to be constantly changing and portion sizes are always up for debate.

The clients she sees feel guilt over what they aren't doing, rather than focusing on what they are.

"They tend to be extremely hard on themselves, and they're aiming for 100 per cent perfection," she said.

"And the reality with healthy eating is that there's no perfection. It is basically we're doing the best we can with the circumstances we're in every day."

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